On November 5, 2020 the citizens of St. Vincent and the Grenadines will go to the polls and vote for their next government. The incumbent United Labour Party (ULP), government of Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, is running for its fifth consecutive term in office, but the contest is expected to be close, much like the last two votes in 2010 and 2015. St. Vincent is the second to last election for what has been a busy election year in the Caribbean, which saw tough fights for office in Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Guyana, Jamaica, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago. Belize goes to the polls on November 11. In all of this, what happens in St. Vincent and the Grenadines is important—it reaffirms the Caribbean’s role as a region which is generally defined as democratic; something that cannot be taken for granted in today’s world. The elections could also have international implications if the opposition party, NDP, wins which has stated that it would drop Taiwan in favor of China.
The economy looms over the vote. Agriculture, tourism and construction are the mainstays of the St. Vincent economy as well as a small financial center. Remittances also play an important role. The Eastern Caribbean island-state has the distinction of being the world’s leading producer of arrowroot, which can be used to produce gluten free flour and continues to comprise a significant portion of the agricultural exports alongside bananas. Due to its reliance on tourism and agriculture, St. Vincent’s economy is open and highly dependent on international developments. The COVID-19 pandemic’s blow to tourism has been particularly tough. In 2019 the industry contributed to a little over 46 percent of GDP and 42.7 percent of employment.
The World Bank has estimated a 5.5 percent contraction in island’s economy during 2020. Although it is expected to rebound in 2021—forecast at four percent—much depends on the medical situation and recovery in North America and Europe from where most of its tourists hail.
Even prior to the pandemic the Vincentian economy was sluggish. According to the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank, real GDP growth was just one percent in 2017 with a modest uptick to 2.2 percent in 2018, before slipping to an anemic 0.49 percent in 2019. Contributions to the slowdown were weak global growth, tight financial conditions and higher oil prices (which have since fallen).
The economy has also increasingly been hobbled by the country’s debt burden, which stood at 70.5 percent of GDP in 2019. Although this was down from a recent high of 81.2 percent in 2016, and the government is committed to debt reduction, St. Vincent and the Grenadines are one of the more heavily indebted countries in the region.
Although the economic landscape was challenging prior to COVID-19, there were some bright spots: the international airport was completed in 2017, the long-awaited geothermal power plant is nearly completed, and there has been a steady stream of remittances. Nonetheless, 2020 will go down as a memorably bad year for the economy.
To its credit, the Gonsalves government swiftly implemented containment measures and a fiscal package, which included an increase in spending for the health sector, new construction projects to generate employment, financial support measures for agriculture and fishing, and programs to assist displaced workers and the most vulnerable. The government also received $16 million in emergency financing assistance from the International Monetary Fund. According to the World Health Organization, St. Vincent and the Grenadines has seen only 64 confirmed cases and no deaths, an admirable record.
The incumbent ULP faces multiple election challenges. The party has been in power since the 2001 under the same leader, Gonsalves. He has steered his country for nearly 20 years and is seeking another five, which would make him one of the longest standing prime ministers in the region. In the last two elections the ULP managed to keep its control by a single seat, and in the 2015 elections, the vote count for two of the seats was challenged. At the same time, the ULP must also defend its management of the economy during COVID-19.
The NDP leader Dr. Godwin Friday is pitching a “time for a change and time for us to plant the seed for a better future for you and your family. Our country urgently needs the biggest job creation program ever in the history of our country to deal with the current unemployment crisis that we have in this country—over 36 percent of our people are without jobs. For young people, it is over 50 percent.” To this he added, “And the choice, very simply, is this: the more broken promises, more complacency, more self-interest and nepotism, more victimization under the ULP, or a new beginning for the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a new beginning with a plan forward for jobs and growth and a better future under the New Democratic Party.”
Friday and the NDP have also stressed the need to procure more foreign investment, which likely would come from China, to update the run-down infrastructure in parts of the country, such as jetties in the Grenadines, the Bequia airport, and the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital.
One of the major differences between the ULP and NDP is Taiwan. St. Vincent has maintained relations with the Asian island-state since 1981. While Taiwan has been active in providing scholarships for Vincentians to go their island, the Asian state has also provided considerable help in the construction of the Argyle International Airport, seen as critical for the further development of the Caribbean country’s tourist sector as well as opening the island to the rest of the world. Prior to Argyle’s opening, people wishing to go to St. Vincent had to board at another regional airport capable of taking larger planes for international trips. Gonsalves has been loyal to Taiwan while the NDP has stated that they will break relations with Taiwan in favor of China and its larger checkbook. Depending on the election results, St. Vincent may pop-up on Washington’s geopolitical radar screen in a far more significant fashion.
Elections in the Caribbean in 2020 have been hard-fought contests. This year the incumbents won re-election in Dominica, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago, while new leaders emerged in the Dominican Republic as well as in Guyana and Suriname after lengthy and tense post-election periods. Considering the mess in Venezuela and Cuba’s long stretch of authoritarian rule, this year’s Caribbean elections clearly reflect that regional societies are capable of democratic governance. Though hardly perfect, they provide hope in a world where democratic norms are increasingly challenged. Barring any unforeseen major interruption, St. Vincent and the Grenadines will go to the polls on November 5, 2020, an election certainly to be overshadowed by its North American cousin, but not without its own significance.